Perhaps the best thing about contemporary personal audio is that regardless of your budget there are products available that will connect you with your music. And while some companies such as Astell & Kern, Focal, and Jerry Harvey audio continue to push the boundaries of performance and price, there are firms that occupy the other end of the price spectrum who are making it easier for young budget-minded music lovers to hear music clearly and cleanly.
If you know where to look you can find earphones priced under $30US that produce completely acceptable audiophile-level sound that can, if properly applied, convert almost any music-lover into a fledgling audiophile. Obviously, these offerings are far less well known than Beats, Bose, and Apple. That's probably because, among other things they don't advertise in the United States or Europe and they have no customer support outside of their home country, which is China. If you have a problem with this particular country of origin you can stop reading now. This blog will look at two relatively unknown-in-the-US brands and where you can safely acquire them via the Internet.
The first brand, KZ, which is short for Knowledge Zenith, make several models, all priced under $25, that are remarkable both for their sound and their build quality. They have eleven different models, from their $9.88 ATES ATE ATR HD9 Copper Driver HiFi Sport Headphones to their $23.98 ZST Pro Armature Dual Driver Earphone with detachable cables. I have several pair of ATE ATR HD9 in-ears, and I like them so much that I bought a dozen as holiday stocking stuffers for my younger relatives. Their sound is far more natural and uncolored than many more expensive mid-bass-centric IERs I've stuck into my ears. The ATE ATR HD9's single, full-range, dynamic driver delivers a surprisingly unlumpy frequency response and if you get a good fit, decent bass extension and imaging.
The other KZ in-ear that has gotten a lot of ear-time from me lately is the KZ ZST Armature Dual Driver earphone. This hybrid design with a removable cable has one dynamic driver, similar to the ATE model, but KZ augments it with a single balanced armature driver for a "comfortable" sonic signature not unlike what you hear from a good two-way BBC monitor, but inside your head. The ZST comes bundled with three silicon tips, the smallest of which delivered an OK fit, but I settled on a triple flange eartip that I found in my giant 8" by 12" by 5" box of eartips. With these tips the body of the ZST sits comfortably in my auricle, and stays put with very little periodic adjustment needed. I can go from these to a pair of Astell & Kern AK T8iE ($999) and while the T8iE sound more vibrant, detailed and image more precisely, the ZST still sound musical in comparison with good detail and a smooth upper midrange that you can relax into.
My third under $30 in-ear is from Tennmak, another company not well known here in the US. Their Pro Dual Driver model which goes for between $23 and $26 (depending on the source) is a winner. I like its balanced, natural sound and the way it fits. I use my pair with a double-flange soft rubber eartip that came from my big box of tips. The Tennmak is certainly the best-packaged and accessorized of the three in-ears, with three different-sized soft silicon tips and a very nice protective carrying case that does not suck. The cable is also replaceable. Soundwise they have slightly more treble and bass extension than the ZSTs, but don't have quite as smooth and seductive a midrange.
Now that I've got you going I have to add some caveats to my KZ and Tennmak recommendations. If you live outside China do not expect any customer support. AliExpress has, for every purchase I've made, been scrupulous about sending confirmations at every step in the purchase process, but once you receive your in-ears you are on your own. So far I have found KZ and Tennmak quality control to be good enough that I have not gotten any lemons, but if you do, you may have few, if any, options. Also, don't expect speedy delivery. China Post, so far, has been quite reliable for me, but delivery will take much longer than anything ordered from Amazon Prime.
My favorite line from the movie The Mask was "So, kid, do you feel lucky?" that sentiment applies to any purchase from a long-distance retailer, but seemingly even more so when the retailer is clearly located in China. But if you do feel lucky, you can acquire some very listenable and comfortable in-ears for very little money.
In my humble opinion the reward far outweighs the risk.